This weekend I had the unfortunate experience of bouncing off a games system. What I mean is the moment when, while highly excited to learn a new game and trying to run myself through some play, I realise that I either don’t really understand the game or that the game really isn’t what I hoped for. The reaction is one where I essentially find it too hard to continue to learn and choose to stop.
That probably sounds like an odd thing to many readers. I mean, what could cause a person who is excited to learn a particular game to give up when they find it hard? Surely this must make me a super-flaky gamer who is too lazy to learn games? The answer, of course, is that it is a reaction to triggered anxiety and the mental exhaustion that comes with it.
I am no stranger to learning hard games. Nor am I a stranger to doing hard things, learning difficult concepts, or thinking about tricky problems. I am a graduate of theology, a teacher of philosophy, and I’ve learned to play Rolemaster, Palladium Fantasy, GURPS, and several other apparently difficult-to-learn-and-run RPGs. So what on Earth would stop me dead in my tracks?
Uncertainty and the moment when it becomes too hard to continue because the ambiguities within a game system mount up to the point where my mental capacity is overwhelmed.
For example, when a game is so poorly designed, written, or presented that I end up spending countless hours having to flip through different sections to be able to accurately and correctly build a character. Generally, this happens when game designers have zero idea about how to teach their rules.
Here’s an example of what happens: when creating a character, you are asked to make a choice from a list but it becomes clear that the list of choices contains further decisions that were not previously mentioned. I find this happens when (for example) skills have specialisms but they are not mentioned in the character creation rules.
Many designers like to save up “how skills work” for the separate chapter on Skills, so they omit these details during the Character Creation chapter. Result? Page flipping. Reading more and more of the tome until… well, it becomes clear that I need to read it all before I can make this decision. I don’t want to read it all at once, so I bounce off it.
Why do most RPG rulebooks never seem to take into account the simple idea that you need to introduce concepts and choices from the simplest and work up to more complex ideas? Largely, I think, because game design and teaching are separate disciplines. Many writers have no idea how to teach.
But I’d also like to point out that, in a world filled with ambiguity, the last thing I need during my discretionary time is more ambiguity.
Learning a new game can be enjoyable… but not if it requires me to essentially reconstruct the entire game rules for myself because the author(s) cannot parse the information in a reasonable manner.
In the end, the fact that the book is so poorly written triggers my anger and that’s when I give up. So, there, I’ve said it.